Writing is the Closing of Circles: Nava Semel


From R. Lentin, Israel and the Daughters of the Shoah: Re-occupying the Territories of Silence, (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000)


I met the late Nava Semel on November 25, 1992 in the apartment she shared with her husband Noam Semel, director of the Tel Aviv Cameri Theatre, and their three children, Iyar and twins Eal-Eal and Nimdor. Semel was born in 1954 in Tel Aviv. Her father, Itzhak Artzi, a former Knesset member and deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, was born in Bukovina and is not a concentration camp survivor. Her mother, Margalit (Mimi) Artzi (nee Liquornik), also born in Bukovina, is a survivor of several concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Kleineshenau. The twins, born in the US while Noam Semel served with the Israeli consulate in New York, have American passports. ‘This too is part of my being a daughter of survivors,’ Semel explained, ‘at least when the helicopters come to rescue the survivors here, they would be saved.’ Semel’s brother, Shlomo Artzi, is a leading Israeli popular singer. Semel is small, short haired, and very intense. Her use of the Hebrew language is very precise. She had obviously done a lot of thinking about being a daughter of Shoah survivors and has written both fiction and journalism about it.

Nava Semel describes her childhood as an ‘ordinary Israeli childhood.’ She served in the army as a news producer with Galei Tsahal, the army radio channel. She began writing when she had her first child. Her collection of short stories, the first ‘second generation’ fiction collection published in Israel, Kova Zekhukhit (A Hat of Glass) (1985), met with a wall of silence when it first appeared, but has been written about extensively since then. The collection was re-issued in 1998 with an introduction by the literary critic Nurit Govrin. Several stories have been translated into English, German, Spanish, Turkish and French and appeared translations in Germany and Italy in 2000.

In all the stories there is a ‘child of’ persona and they are all based on the various stages of learning about and coming to terms with her parents’ survival as Semel explains in the following narrative. Indeed, in all her books, the reality is often viewed from a child’s point of view.

Her one-woman play Hayeled meAchorei Haeinayim (The Child Behind the Eyes) (1987), a monologue of a mother of a Down Syndrome child, had many showings in Israel and abroad and several radio broadcasts internationally. In 1996 it won the Austrian radio play of the year award. Her two novels for young people, Gershona Shona (Becoming Gershona) (1988/1990), and Maurice Havivel Melamed Lauf (Flying Lessons) (1991/1995) deal with young people living among Shoah survivors in search of an Israeli identity. Both were translated into English. In 1996 Flying Lessons was selected in Germany as one of the 30 best books of the year. The novel Rali Masa Matara (Night Games) (1993) is the story of a group of Israeli forty-something friends playing a treasure hunt on the 1987 Day of Independence, half a year before the Intifada broke out. The novel Isha al Neyar (Bride on Paper) (1996) tells of life in a pre-state Israeli moshava (collective settlement) in the 1930s. Semel also translates plays, mostly on Shoah-related themes.

In 1996 Semel won the Prime Minister’s Award, a twelve-months writing scholarship. In 1999 she collaborated with her father in writing his biography (Artzi and Semel, 1999), documenting the story of a young Zionist journeying from Europe to Israel. And writing the script for a documentary film on Transnistria, based on her journey to the death camps in 1998.

Since our initial meeting, which proved seminal to writing this book, Semel and I remained in close contact. I have chosen to present her entire narrative not as an ‘ideal type,’ but because it seems to be the ‘key story’ to the interpretation of the other narratives. The narrative encompasses most of the elements highlighted by the other narrators and theorised in later chapters. These include breaking the silence surrounding the Shoah and Shoah survivors, the confrontation between the Jewish Shoah and Israel’s ‘new Hebrews,’ ceremonial memory versus intimate memory and the ‘masculinised’ Israeli ‘normality’ versus the stigmatisation of Shoah survivors. Moreover, perhaps because my parents, like her parents, came from Bukovina, the trajectory Semel’s narrative presents, her ‘thematic field,’ from the split subjectivity of being a silenced child of survivors, stigmatised in the new state of Israel, and a member of (our) first sabra generation, to being a writer who is re-interpreting the puzzle of Shoah daughterhood, resonates most with my own trajectory.

Semel has been central to my work, not in the sense of being a ‘key informant,’ nor in the sense of being a ‘co-author,’ but our collaboration raises important issues about voice and authorship. Like the other narrators, Semel has been engaged in ‘researching’ the meaning of being a daughter of Shoah survivors in Israeli society, and, like the other narrators, she is a ‘woman of voice,’ who has broken the silence about the Shoah in her own family and in Israeli society by writing herself onto Israel’s cognitive map. The feminist strategy of ‘giving voice’ to voiceless people might seem superfluous, if it was not for Semel’s and the other narrators’ recurring stories about silence. While this book is based on their narratives, ‘it is the researcher who narrates, who “authors” the ethnography’ (Stacey, 1991: 23). The question of authority and authorship is particularly thorny when researchers insist on a collaboration process with their informants, but ultimately produce the research text themselves, no matter how modified or influenced by the narrators. My work with Nava Semel and the other narrators was dialogic, yet the question of ‘giving voice’ remains open. Dialogue as a research strategy employs Myerhoff’s notion (1992) of the ‘third voice,’ born by the virtue of the collusion between researcher – a sociological narrator, embodied, situated and ultimately responsible for her own words, her own ‘multiple selves’ – and narrators.

Although (mostly in reply to my questioning) Semel does deal with the gender element of Israeli Shoah metaphors and commemoration, gender is not her prime concern. Her narrative does, however, serve to illustrate the extent to which both the Shoah and Israel are gendered constructs. Furthermore, Semel’s viewpoint is continuously gendered: she refers to herself first as daughter, then as mother and wife. The stages of self identification as daughter of a Shoah survivor and the parallel process of writing her first collection of short stories, are closely linked with stereotypical gender roles. She first hears of her mother’s experience in the kitchen, while her mother is ironing: mothers and daughters seem to communicate in a special way in kitchens. The second time is when she brings a boyfriend home, another gendered rite of passage. Semel describes them as ‘guests’ in her mother’s living room, where refreshments are being served and the mother’s Shoah experience is offered to her daughter, through the boyfriend. She first begins to write when she has a baby and is ‘isolated,’ in a ‘ bubble’ with her new baby, while her husband is busy with a new job. Her writing begins in parallel to the experience of young motherhood and continues in parallel with older, more experienced motherhood, when it is no longer ‘in a bubble,’ but part of a routine which includes bringing and returning her young twins to and from kindergarten and later school, feeding them, worrying about her adolescent and later soldier son and so on. In imparting her narrative, Semel makes the construction of her gender identity transparent. Theorising it, she positions the masculine state vis-à-vis the individual self, although she seems to ‘buy into’ accepted discursive norms when she rejects my suggestion that fighting women models are essentially masculine models, offering instead a ‘unisex’ fighter-model.

Semel’s narrative is clearly organised and channels to one central thematic field, which occupies the final part of the narrative, the trajectory from (a) what Semel describes as ‘the position of the rejected,’ the embodiment of the offspring of the diaspora Jew, the survivor, the ‘sheep to the slaughter;’ to (b) learning ‘to live in peace with what there is.’ In other words, a trajectory from being a silenced child of survivors, living with the secret world of the ‘code word Auschwitz,’ in an Israel which internalised, yet repressed, the memory of the Shoah, to an adult writer who is using her writing as the ‘closing of circles.’

The process of using her writing as a means of coming to terms with her ‘daughterhood’ begins with writing compulsively, in order to confront the ‘black hole,’ the ‘code word,’ and to break the silence and close the circle. Only years after A Hat of Glass, can the daughter-writer write less densely, less compulsively, her writing more integrated into her daily life. The Shoah, however, keeps occupying centre stage even when the writer believes she has written it out of her system. But it is now more casually mentioned, seeping into the plots almost unnoticeably.

Parallel to the narrative about writing, is the narrative about self discovery, a growth narrative beginning with the story of a girl with eating problems, who sees herself as a victim, and developing into the story of a woman, a mother, who is learning to accept and ‘live peacefully with what there is,’ using her writing as an indispensable aid in this growth process.

The narrative presented here is broken into five main sections. The sectioning was self evident, since Semel ordered her narrative expertly, both chronologically and thematically. All I did was add sub headings.

The first section, ‘An ordinary Israeli childhood,’ is Semel’s own presentation of her biography. It begins with an assumption of ordinariness, but what is described as ‘an ordinary Israeli childhood’ transpires to be ‘normal’ only in the sense of a counter-narrative to the hegemonic masculine Israeli ‘normality’ to be described in chapter 6. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of that ‘normality’ and demonstrates that no Israeli actually fitted the hegemonic mould. Very soon after the beginning of Semel’s narrative, we are clearly into secrets, silences, ‘black holes,’ ‘code words;’ everything which is not a ‘born in Israel’ normality, if such a thing exists.

The second section, Writing, deals with the parallel processes of ‘writing stories’ and ‘making selves’: The processes involve Semel’s self-discovery and identification as a daughter of Shoah survivors through discovering her mother’s Shoah survival ‘stories,’ and at the same time making these stories her own by formally writing them as ‘short stories.’ This section demonstrates how the process of self-discovery is also the process of distillation and creation.

The third section, Ceremonial versus intimate memory, building on topics highlighted through the narrative-about-narratives (stories), deals with the juxtaposition of ceremonial versus intimate Shoah memory. Here too the personal weaves in with the public, culminating in the account of the negative critical reception for A Hat of Glass by an Israel which, in 1985, was not yet ready to confront the Shoah.

In the fourth section, ‘The process of repression,’ which begins with an attempt to generalise from the previous section, Semel focuses on the intimate and personal and discusses childhood secrets and their implications. Here, again, the painfully personal touches upon the core issues of the contradictions between the conceptual Israel and the conceptual Shoah.

The final section, ‘Writing is the closing of circles,’ returns to the process of writing and completes the central argument that only through writing, was Semel able to complete the trajectory and face the shame and guilt involved in being a daughter of survivors in contemporary Israel, and, using the bricks of her life, to close the circles.

The narrative is produced through the interaction between Semel and me. Throughout the narrative she addresses me and asks me for confirmation: ‘do you understand?’ ‘do you remember?’ ‘think of a home in the fifties,’ ‘it’s part of what you called at the beginning of our conversation… the Israeli historiography,’ ‘do you know how it feels?’ The direct reference to me is sharpest when Semel refers to a character in a book as coming from Gura Humora, my father’s birthplace. Or when she speaks of her triumph in allowing her children not to eat when they don’t feel like it and throwing food out. We share the same psychic ‘data bank’ relating to memory and to food, and she doesn’t have to elaborate in order for me to understand exactly what she is talking about; our identification is symbiotic.

Life stories are indeed not finished products ready to be ‘served up’ on demand, but evolve around a thematic topic, usually established by the interviewer, in a manner judged by the narrator to be of interest to the listener (Rosenthal, 1993: 65). Although I tried to keep the conversation as open-ended as possible, my theoretical focus, that of juxtaposing Israel and the Shoah as gendered, did influence the narratives. Throughout our conversation I commented on what Semel said in order to assist her in explicating or ‘evaluating.’ Narrators say in evaluation clauses (‘the soul of the narrative’) how they want to be understood (Labov, 1972, 1982; Riessman, 1993: 20). Semel’s narrative is framed by my comments. I have cut the narrative according to Semel’s requests; she saw the final version and approved. By leaving large sequences of the narrative undisturbed, I aim to allow Semel to speak for herself.

‘An ordinary Israeli childhood’

‘Good and well educated children’

I was born in 1954, in Israel, in a ma’abara (transit camp) near Tel Aviv. My parents came from Bukovina, a region that was Austro-Hungary until World War I and then became Romania […] Hebrew was spoken at home.[1] I am a second child, my brother was born five years before me. I had an ordinary Israeli childhood with all the usual stops, primary school, secondary school, a north Tel Aviv childhood, the struggle of a family for, let us say, economic independence, or for a reasonable economic ceiling where one could bring up a child. No special deprivation.

My father worked at what is called askanut (activism), or, politics, he was a politician and then the boundaries changed. Through the years, he worked in the Jewish Agency, did a little press work, then party political work and finally, became a member of the Knesset and was deputy mayor of Tel Aviv for 20 years. A very large chunk of his life was devoted to dealing with issues of Aliya (Jewish immigration to Israel), and with new immigrants. In recent years he has been working at assisting Shoah survivors. He established a foundation, named after him, which assists elderly survivors with geriatric problems. He is also a member of an international claims conference for the refund of Jewish property.

My mother had a clerical job, I suppose, in the National Lottery. She never made a career for herself.

I wrote from the moment I remember myself. Even before I could write, I wrote stories in my head. I wanted to be a writer… from the moment, I suppose, of my very beginning. The question was actualisation and publication. I dared come out with it only after my first son was born. Then I started to publish. Essentially, I think I could take responsibility for the writing only once I learnt to take responsibility for a child.

This is a biography, I think, which is very typical of those born in the 50s in Israel. With the regular stops. I forgot, of course, the army, in this case Galei Tsahal (the IDF radio station), which is also north Tel Aviv, good and well educated children. Good and well educated children, from ‘a good home.’

There are many references here to a middle class, urban (‘north Tel Aviv’ has connotations of the ‘better’ side of Tel Aviv) upbringing. The term ‘good and well educated children’ denotes the Ashkenazi, urban, middle class background I share with Semel (although I was born in Haifa). The fact that our parents come from the same place, offered a common ground which necessitated minimal explanations. A lot of Israeli history is enfolded in this biographical introduction: a middle-European origin; the early struggle of a newly-arrived family; her father’s pre-state and state political activism (in the liberal General Zionist Party, the Independent Liberal Party and and later in the Labour Party); the gender division between a publicly involved father and a private mother, who had a ‘little job,’ not a career; schooling; army service. Semel does not mention her university education, but she does mention motherhood, which she later describes as a trigger to writing. The key word ‘trigger’ appears several times throughout the narrative, always said in English, or Anglicised Hebrew (triggerim). The narrative is strewn with images of weaponry, perhaps due to the consciousness of war and defence, which surrounded us as young Israelis, perhaps relating to the Shoah.

‘ I belong to the category of silent families ‘


Essentially, I belong to the category of silent families. The basic fact was known, and I don’t know how it was known, but it was the fact that my mother survived Auschwitz. Details, there was never any verbal, direct mention of the experience of the Shoah. It was a sort of knowledge, a basic knowledge, you can say. An infallible axiom at home …


What age were you when they spoke about it, I mean when they mentioned it for the first time?


I don’t remember that they mentioned it at all. I remember, a real mention, only on the day they caught Eichmann. [2] I remember what I call non-verbal transmission, the physical sight of my mother listening to the radio at six, at twilight, when Ben Gurion announced in the Knesset that Eichmann had been caught. And my mother standing by the radio and physically shaking. I remember myself pulling at her dress and asking who this man was and she said only the name, Eichmann, I don’t remember anybody explaining to me who he was. Because the man who owned the grocery store, at the end of our street, Brandeis street, was called Astman and I used to, they used to send me to buy half a loaf of bread, which I used to bite at on the way home. I was afraid for a very long time to go to the grocery store and buy bread, because I thought that the man who owned the grocery store was a criminal. By the way, this man and his wife were Shoah survivors.

This is one reference I remember. The second reference I remember, specifically, was when I brought home from the school library Katzetnik’s Bet Habubot (House of Dolls) (Katzetnik, 1953).[3] I chose the book because of the title, I thought it was a children’s book. And when I brought the book home, my mother saw it and, I can remember it to this day, it was wrapped, do you remember those brown paper wraps, which they used to wrap library books in? And she didn’t let me read the book. She closed it, she closed it with a bang, returned it to my satchel and said, tomorrow you are returning this book to school and you will not read it. And this is why I did not read Katzetnik until I was 26.

Apart from these references, there were so to say, ‘seeping’ exchanges of information, or transmission of non-verbal information, through body language and through crises and catastrophes that always, in some way, were compared […] And then there was the word ‘Auschwitz.’ The word ‘Auschwitz’, in my childhood, was identified with sleeping pills at night, with black clothes, with terror, and with something very terrifying, which I didn’t want to know exactly.

‘Heroic Shoah biography’ versus ‘sheep to the slaughter’

As for my father’s biography, he brings what I call a ‘heroic Shoah biography.’ Because he was in the underground, he was a member of the ‘Zionist Youth’ and he was active during the Shoah. He forged passports, changed identities, and later travelled to Transnistria, as part of the operation to save the orphans. He did relate directly to his past, heroically, of course.

I think that at a certain age, I am not quite clear when, a very clear identity was created for me, I think, after they started to show at school – television did not exist then – after they started to show visual pictures of what they called in the Israeli ethos, ‘sheep to the slaughter,’ the lines of naked people opposite the gas chambers. Clearly, very manipulatively, in my head, I added two and two and made the right connection and identified my mother with these people. And this created a far sharper and stronger block so as not to confront the subject, a block between me and the subject.

One of the most absurd things, in retrospect, is the fact that I participated, like all good girls from good homes, in the ritual ceremonies of Yom Hashoah at school. But I never, never imagined that I should have gone home, on that very day, and asked my mother directly, because she had been there. I mean there was a complete dissociation. I think that in this respect I am representative of a whole generation for whom there was a dissociation relating to the ritualism, which undoubtedly was also based on heroic rituals in these years of shaping the Israeli psyche. In those days Yom Hashoah was more the ‘Heroism and Shoah day’ than the other way round. And the Anielewicz myths were fortified. And it was undoubtedly very hard for me to identify my mother with the Anielewicz myth. Because I think that I had already fixated the image of those going to their death ‘like sheep to the slaughter.’ And those people about whom this phrase ‘sheep to the slaughter’ was said were spoken of with a considerable measure of contempt, by contrast with that Anielewicz heroism.


So at home you had both, the Shoah and the heroism?


Yes. Although in relation to my father’s heroism, it’s hard to say he actually took arms; but his heroism could be talked about, he was able to relate to his past. My mother, on the other hand, had a black hole in her biography. If she spoke about her childhood, she referred to it up to the age of 18, and if she spoke about her life, she returned to it at the age of 23. That means that five years were missing, but I never gave it a thought until I became an adult myself and understood that a part was missing in this chain.

Semel summarises the two main Israeli ‘narratives’ which co-exist to this day in relation to the Shoah. On the one hand there is the story of the Jewish victims who are seen as having gone to their death passively, and who have therefore not been given pride of place in the mythologised memory of the Shoah. On the other hand there is the story of ‘heroic rituals.’ Chapter 4 discusses the tensions between these two representations. In relation to the heroic myths, Semel refers to Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, who has become the symbol of armed resistance during the Shoah. She juxtaposes the ‘Anielewicz myth’ with the victims and with Semel’s own self image as a would-be victim.

Semel argues that although the heroic myths were constructed by ‘the state,’ she is a ‘representative of a whole generation for whom there is a dissociation relating to the ritualism.’ It seems to me that she is also referring to another form of dissociation, that of a victim dissociating herself from trauma. In her work with victims of sexual abuse, Annie Rogers identifies two forms of oppression: cultural denials and lies, leading to repression, and physical and sexual abuse, leading to dissociation. The cultural denials and lies relating to the Shoah may have led to a process of repression, which Semel refers to later. According to Rogers, memories that have been dissociated are recalled with greater difficulty than memories that have been repressed, leaving gaps in narrative, fragments of a memory sequence. Roger concludes from listening to sexually abused girls and women and from her own history of abuse that ‘dissociation is a brilliantly creative solution to living through trauma and coming to terms with traumatic memories’ (Rogers, 1994: 6).

Semel’s mother’s voice, silenced until she was able to tell her daughter the story of the ‘black hole in her biography,’ may represent such dissociation. The voices of Rogers’ interviewees are disruptive and full of gaps, and require careful listening by a psychotherapist. Semel was able to be a careful listener to her mother’s life story, and she pieced together bravely her mother’s story in order to weave her own. She knows, however, that her mother’s story is fragmented and full of gaps, as she says later: ‘there were of course many patches … to this day I have unclear sections … the chronicle I would write would be partial, subjective, with unbridgeable gaps…’

This section of the narrative also exemplifies the gender break between fathers speaking and mothers remaining silent in relation to the Shoah. Chapter 3 refers to the differences between survivor fathers and survivor mothers in relation to this study’s narrators.

Mother – ‘Someone with a life, with an incredible drama’

Was there ever a time when you asked her, at a later age?


One day she volunteered to tell. It was the first time in my life that she volunteered to tell and there were two triggers. One was an event in my private life, and in her biography… She chastised me gently and I burst out, saying she didn’t know anything about real life… She was ironing and she put down the iron, burning the garment and, shooting from the hip, she simply threw at me her whole biography, about which I knew nothing. And I simply stood, I remember my mouth, not being able to say one word, I was simply paralysed between my nose and my chin. I simply didn’t know what to say. This was the first time it descended on me.

The second time was in the presence of a third party. In my last year at school I had a boyfriend, a soldier. And on Yom Hashoah he came home from the army, in uniform, and somehow she sat us both in the living room at home, like guests. It was very amazing, she served us coffee, and started speaking about having been in Auschwitz, in an extermination camp. She spoke to me through him. He, by the way, came from a family who were seven generations Israelis, people who had founded Israeli industry, so that he did not have so-called personal connection (to the Shoah). And he listened very carefully and asked her questions tactfully, with interest. And I felt she was speaking to me, above his head. This was the first time she spoke directly about the Shoah.

When the other incident happened, at which I discovered she had a whole life about which I knew nothing in these five years. I remember I rang my brother, I couldn’t stop myself. And I told him, at first as a curiosity, with wonderment that my mother had a life, that beyond the maternal, beyond what I call ‘the banana and the jumper’, hides someone with a life, with an incredible drama. My brother was incredulous for many years.

This is something which I have met as a result of writing A Hat of Glass (Semel, 1985) and later when I collected reactions; many children of Shoah survivors told me that when they discovered the real story, their first reaction was disbelief. How could it have happened – you jumped from trains? You jumped? My mother told me, amongst other things, later, when things sort of came out, that she escaped at least twice from that notorious left side to which she had been sent by Mengele. She managed to escape to the right. It seemed so illogical. I do not doubt the truth of her story, and I know illogical things did happen. But it’s hard to believe that my mother, whom I perceived as so passive, so conventional, was able for such an active thing. This by the way was a question I eventually put to her, and I asked her how. How was it possible to do such a thing. And she claimed that logic doesn’t work in such moments and that she doesn’t have a clue as to why she did what she did. The dramatic events she detailed were her two escapes from the left side, and one jump from a moving train when she was transferred from one camp to another after Auschwitz.

Another action was after liberation, when she and another survivor entered German houses, in Zitau, the site of her last camp, from which she was liberated by the Russians looking for food, shoes, and clothes, because they were liberated with only a shift and it was May and still quite cold, and her encounter with a Russian officer. And because she knew one word in Russian Jidovka (Jewess), [4] and because he was Jewish, he started talking to her in Yiddish, she was the first Jew he met after liberation. And he took her under his wing and returned her to her parents’ house in a military train, within four days after liberation, her parents had already returned from Transnistria. She was liberated from East Germany, Transnistria had been liberated several months earlier…

This action, travelling with a strange Red Army Soviet officer, on an arms train, he locked her in for four days telling her not to open the door to anyone but him, because all the other soldiers were potential rapists, soldiers who had been to Stalingrad and had not seen a woman. He locked her and brought her food. She cannot even remember his name. All these active and dramatic stories […] It was difficult for me to equate these things with her present persona.

The over-protectiveness of Shoah survivor parents is documented in the psychological literature and many children of survivors speak about it. The ‘banana and jumper’ syndrome is, however, familiar to many Israeli children of Semel’s and my generation. It is based on the stereotypical Israeli-Jewish mother who chases her child with a jumper (in case it gets cold) and a banana, which she must eat, to grow up and be strong (and become the antithesis of the stereotypical weak diaspora Jew). In the same token ‘passive,’ ‘conventional’ survivor parents were constructed as weak and ‘Jewish’ – again in contrast to the ‘new Hebrew’ construct. Therefore any ‘heroic’ exploits, such as escaping the notorious concentration camp ‘selections,’ or jumping from a moving train, were dissociated from their perceived image as anxious, worried parents.


Writing Mother’s story – A Hat of Glass

Semel describes three stages of getting acquainted with her mother’s story, which are also stages of self-identification as a daughter of survivors. Each stage gives birth to one or more short stories. The first stage (and the first short story) was the discovery that her mother had a ‘story.’ She first hears her mother’s story in her late teens, but the short story gets written only after she has her first child, at 25. The second stage is facilitated by declaring herself to Jane Fonda, and the third, by an encounter with Shoah denial in Egypt. This marks the initial stage of self discovery and writing, after which she confronted her mother, who agreed to tell her ‘the full story,’ resulting in completing the collection of stories.

Semel describes the process of writing as a journey of self discovery through several encounters which forced her to identify herself openly as a daughter of survivors and exit the isolation resulting from having grown up in a ‘silent family.’ This process of identification has all the characteristics of ‘coming out’ (‘I am a daughter of a Shoah survivor’), and is also a process of ‘naming,’ and of breaking the silence and the isolation: making the self as we make our stories. Ironically, the process was conducted in the complete isolation of her young motherhood: key words are ‘isolated,’ ‘bubble,’ ‘me and the baby.’ They return later in the narrative when she contrasts her past isolation with her present, more integrated process of working out Shoah materials in her writing.

My first book was a book of poetry, which dealt with a dialogue between a mother and her unborn child. It was written during my first pregnancy and in the labour ward. It did not relate to anything, apart from a very basic thing, a parent-child dialogue. The second book, A Hat of Glass, I began to write at the age of 25, when I had a baby of two or three months. We moved to Haifa, I was completely isolated, isolated from the family, living in a bubble. Without a job. Until then I had several nine-to-five jobs. Now I had a partner who was sucked into a new job, running Haifa Theatre, and who was rarely at home. So it was me and the baby. I started to write short stories, and, after writing three skeletons of stories, I realised what I was writing.

(a) The Kapo

One of them was the story ‘A Hat of Glass,’ which was based on something my mother had told me. This was a story she had told me and my boyfriend in my last year in school, on that organised Yom Hashoah. This was a story about a concentration camp, it’s the only story in the collection which takes place ‘there,’ about the lesbian Kapo who saved other inmates, as told through her victim. This was the first story. The second story in the collection was ‘A journey to the two Berlins’ in which a person sits Shiv’a [5] in mourning for his mother, and suddenly discovers, after her death, her link to the Shoah and to Germany, to someone in Germany who had helped her, or saved her, or whatever.

(b) Jane Fonda

The third story was about the journey with Jane Fonda. This, by the way, is authentic, because it actually happened. I really was, by chance, with Jane Fonda in a car and I think it was one of the triggers for the whole book. It happened a few months after we moved to Haifa. Fonda was a guest of the theatre and Noam and I accompanied her from Tel Aviv to Haifa in a Foreign Ministry limousine with a Foreign Ministry official. Fonda interrogated me all the way, she literally pushed me to the corner and for a whole hour asked me questions about the Shoah. She opened by saying that she had a friend in Los Angeles, who was a survivor of Dachau, who, for thirty years had repressed the whole thing, and who, now, when the children had left home, when everything was financially and socially wonderful, she suddenly began having nightmares. She stopped sleeping and saw a psychologist and gradually the whole business of Dachau came out. The woman was amazed, because she claimed she hadn’t thought of it for thirty years. All her life began to crumble. Fonda asked me if it was possible that people could repress a traumatic thing that happened so many years before. Here the second question was whether a trauma experienced by a parent is significant for a child.

This was a question I would have never asked myself had this wise American woman not pushed me in that car ride. And it was the first time I said, I can remember it physically, ‘I am a daughter of a Shoah survivor.’

My identification with her, with my mother, was specific. This conversation made me very uncomfortable, very resistant, very mixed up. I was aggressive, I didn’t know what to, I didn’t quite understand why we couldn’t pass the time speaking of something pleasant, such as films, for instance. By the way, Fonda had just been filming Julia, which must have been meaningful for her.

We got out of the car, the conversation came to an end and everything stopped. But the difficult feelings stayed with me for a very long time. When I wrote the story, I reconstructed the conversation. It is a very short story. The shortest in the collection. Only while writing, did I understand what she was talking about, from her own point of view. Because her own mother committed suicide, at home, when she was ten or twelve. The trauma was so strong that she was trying to check with me what was left with me from a parent’s trauma and when do these people choose to commit suicide, how come they had the ability to survive, while her mother, who had not experienced the Shoah or anything else which ‘justified’ a suicide, did it at home, near her children. This must haunt her very much.

Why – these are the things you can never explain – why was I in the car with her, why was she in that particular mood, why did she locate me, of all people, in order to hit me with all these questions, she did not let me off the hook, she extricated the answers from me, she pulled the strings with such power, that for a long time after I left that car, I felt something was torn. Something very basic broke to pieces. This was the third story I wrote.

When I discovered what I had written, when I read the three stories together, I abandoned them immediately, because I understood very well what I had written. I understood that the three stories pulled me as if by magnet to that place, to that forbidden code word, to that forbidden code word Auschwitz.

There is a break in the flow of the narrative here, I stopped it with a question relating to the meaning of the ‘code word Auschwitz’ in Israeli society in general. Semel supplied an evaluation of the alienation meted by Israeli society to the survivors, who all the same immersed themselves in the process of building their new land and rehabilitating their lives (key words are ‘hostile,’ ‘alien,’ ‘no one listening,’ but also ‘life urge,’ ‘fast rehabilitation,’ ‘sucked into the giant vacuum cleaner of building Israel,’ and ‘momentum of doing’). However, my intervention does not keep her away from her own narrative for long. Immediately after contextualising her own narrative in the general explanation, she returns to the third encounter which facilitated her ‘coming out.’


Is this connected to the status of the Shoah in Israeli society in general, do you think?


It is not unconnected. I always see the micro as not unconnected to the macro. In my opinion, the Israeli climate was, if not hostile, certainly alien and not aware of how to digest these people who arrived with traumas, and with a lot of guilt on the part of the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish settlement) in Erez Israel. Because, it transpires that some of the facts (about the Shoah) did reach (the Yishuv) and no one wanted to believe them. Plus the fact that the survivors themselves, because they felt – I am making a simplistic and very quick analysis – because they felt there was no one listening, they closed up and this suited their psychic state of surviving as a result of a life urge and fast rehabilitation. So they chose to deal with the practical aspects of life. I always think that what saved them from such a large collective trauma, which, by the way, they did not even clarify to themselves, was the fact that very fast they were sucked into the giant vacuum cleaner of building Israel, into the momentum of doing, of practice, of livelihood, of bread, of moving from tents in a transit camp to an apartment in some apartment block and so on. And then they had to send the child to school and have him bring home good grades. Therefore their children saw them as the ultimate, absolute model of parenthood. What I call ‘the banana and jumper.’ Therefore the disbelief was even greater, because you could not have suspected that behind the parent who is chasing you with a banana and a jumper the whole day and the whole night, could hide such enormous dramas…

It was almost impossible to link that parental model with a human model. My dialogue with my mother began when I decided she was a human being, not only my mother. And I was going to examine the biography of that human being.

I abandoned the stories for a very long period, almost ten months. But I didn’t burn them, or throw them away. I stuck them in some drawer but the drawer had a metaphysical force. I literally battled against it, it had a presence…

(c) Egypt

Ten months later we went to Egypt. It was after the (1979) peace agreement with Egypt. Noam decided he wanted to produce an Egyptian play and he knew there was a novel by Naghib Mahfouz and he decided to ask him for an adaptation. He decided that as part of the peace process, we would go to Egypt to ask Mahfouz’s permission. We went to Alexandria. We knew only in which coffee-house Mahfouz used to sit. It was a gamble. We flew to Cairo with Sasson Somech, [6] and went to Alexandria. We found that coffee-house and he was there. Sasson said to him ‘I have two friends from Israel who would like to meet you’ and Mahfouz said ‘welcome, tfadal.’ We entered the coffee-house stunned. He welcomed us as if we were his long lost brothers. He signed a contract with Noam within an hour and then he began inviting other people to join us. We spent two days with him, most of the time in that coffee house, that was the intellectual centre during the summer months and many people came to meet the Israelis, it was the first time they met Israelis. It was a two-day non-stop banquet.

At some point a man sat beside me. He was presented to me as an Egyptian-born nuclear physicist, who was living in Heidelberg. At some stage he started talking about the first revisionist studies of the Shoah. This was 1980, remember. This was the time of that French PhD which denied the Shoah. And he said, look, people are writing studies saying that what happened to the Jews in Europe during the war, he did not use the word ‘Holocaust,’ was not accurate. Certainly many people died, because in the camps, and he immediately said, like in Stalin’s Gulags, hundreds of people were murdered, and hundreds died of hunger, typhus and dysentery and I have no doubt that at least three million Jews died during the war, just like three million Russians, and two million Hungarians, and God knows what. But I am telling you that there are people who claim, he did not say that this was his opinion, that this whole business of a systematic murder machine, and of crematoria, is, I cannot remember exactly his words, a Jewish exaggeration, or over-reaction.

It was summer. A very hot day. Alexandria is at least as hot as Tel Aviv. I wore a sleeveless dress and I did the following thing (she demonstrates pointing at her arm) and screamed: Don’t tell me that Jews, that the story of the extermination is the invention of the sick brain of the Jews. I am a daughter of a Shoah survivor and my mother arrived from Auschwitz. And only when there was complete silence in the coffee house did I realise I was screaming. And I stood like that, with my arm extended, and he apologised immediately. And Naghib Mahfouz was very angry that someone dared insult his guest, you know. And somehow the whole business was smoothed over.

And when we flew to Israel, some two nights later, I opened the drawer and sat down to write. This was the final trigger. To write it.

When Semel speaks of ‘writing it’ she refers to her awareness that she would have to write the collection, understanding where she was going and what she was doing. More specifically, the Egypt incident refers to ‘The woman of Fayum,’ a story about an Israeli antique dealer who is a son of survivors, who completes his collection of Roman portraits in an antique shop in Alexandria, where an Armenian rival bidder casts doubts upon the Shoah by talking of the Armenian genocide.

‘Opening the code word Auschwitz… someone was asking at last’

Semel’s sense of responsibility to her mother is evident throughout the narrative. In order for her to open the code word, she had to do it with her mother’s knowledge and at the same time protect her from the implications of ‘naming’ that code word. The use of metaphors such as ‘hand grenade,’ ‘weapon’ and ‘blackout’ (associated in Israel with times of war), indicate the sense of danger involved in transforming the mother’s ‘story’ into the daughter’s ‘short story’ – ‘stories within stories.’ The word ‘trigger’ is used again, this time literally. Daughter-writer has to open the code word in order to heal herself but the process is ultimately healing for her mother too, releasing her from her enforced silence: ‘someone was asking at last.’ The process of documenting the ‘black hole’ is conducted again, in the gendered territory of the kitchen. In the journey, the daughter-writer serves three functions: she is daughter, therapist and chronicler. And in chronicling her mother’s story, she is writing her own: ‘making stories, making selves.’ The mother’s story, like the stories of Rogers’ clients, is full of gaps, patches and ‘don’t knows’ (Rogers, 1994).

But the first action, the first conscious action, was to decide that without really opening that frightening code word, Auschwitz, I would not be able to write the book. First of all I had to do it with her knowledge. Again, in my childish subconscious, the same image returned, the image of the hand grenade. Because some of that secret pact of silence at home was created by the fact that the child feels that she has great responsibility. She was not to misuse her weapon. She has a grenade and she is holding on to the trigger. If you say the word Auschwitz, something bad would happen to your parent. She would collapse, she would cry, she would scream, she would again have a headache. My mother suffered migraines when I was a child. It was one of my worst memories. Locking herself up in her room, in the dark, drawing the shutters. It was linked in my mind with black out. Her mysterious headaches with which she would lock herself in for hours. I expected such physical manifestations and I came to her with my legs trembling, with fear, to do what I had to do. And I said to her – we sat in the kitchen, which is not like being a guest at home – and I said to her, I had started to write something and it leads ‘there.’ And I would like you to know and I would like to know if you are prepared to co-operate with me, if you are prepared to open. And the thing that amazed me was the sense of relief on her face, as if someone was asking at last.

‘We started a journey in time, documenting that black hole’

And we started a journey in time, in which I served three functions. I was her daughter, but I was a sort of psychologist, who made it easier for her to go back in time, and I was also her chronicler, a little Josephus Flavius, who was sitting in the kitchen, documenting that black hole. I returned her to age 18 and attempted to walk with her step by step, chronologically, until the liberation day and what happened later. There were, of course, many patches, which, having repressed so much, she was no longer able to reconstruct. To this day I have unclear sections, hidden sections, resulting from her sinking memory. Her memory is clear in its main points, in the central traumas. In the decisive moments, as she said ‘I don’t know why I jumped out of that train window,’ she almost could not remember the action itself, or what she was thinking while doing it. On the other hand, she could remember what happened afterwards, very clearly. I mean there were different weights of memory, and I had to tell myself that in the framework of such deep repression, the chronicle I would write would be partial, subjective, with unbridgeable gaps, and that this was how it was going to stay.

‘Her chronicle, my own chronicle’

Answering my question about the duality of purpose of chronicling her mother’s story while constructing her own life, leads Semel to the story of another story (‘But the music does not cover’) and its significance both in her mother’s and in her own life. This section ends with a ‘literary criticism’ evaluation summary, theorising the link with events in her mother’s life that found their way into Semel’s subconscious when she was writing.


So at some stage you were writing her chronicle, or yours?


Hers. I began with her chronicle. And at the same time I was writing the book. My own chronicle was being written during my own writing…. I think there were two levels here, which I juxtaposed. Or so it seems. If you remember the story ‘But the music does not cover,’ I wrote it at home, during our conversations. There is a section in which Veronica, a young German woman, is summoned to the mother of the man (an Israeli son of survivors) she is going to marry. Veronica is quite alarmed, she knocks at the door and the mother throws a packet into her lap saying, ‘open it, it’s yours.’ When she opens it, it contains a purse and she is stunned, because of course it isn’t hers. When I began describing the purse, when I lifted the pen off the paper. I realised I was describing a real purse. The story was fictional, but the purse, I could see it, I could touch it and I knew it existed. I didn’t understand the connection, it was a description of a very strange purse.

Think of a home in the fifties, with almost nothing. At home, in my miserable toy drawer, with the two and a half bits I had, there was something which looked like a sort of pouch, with strings, made of velvet, black velvet, and embroidered in pearls, with tapestry-style roses. Amazingly beautiful. Why should such an item be in a young girl’s toy drawer? After all it was valuable, it was a very very beautiful, mature artefact, an evening purse. I remember as a girl that one of my favourite pastimes was to pull the tapestry threads and unravel it and all the little beads would scatter around the house. And it made this noise, trr, trr, of the unravelling. It took me years to unravel all these roses, because they were embroidered very tightly, these pearls.

Suddenly I had a picture in my head of me doing it and my mother watching and saying nothing. I was unravelling this purse for years and only at the very end did I remember that at the age of 12 of 13 I made it into an evening outfit for dolly Barbie. On my own. That was the end of its life. But in fact I ruined a very beautiful artefact and no one ever said a word.

It was night when I wrote the description of that purse. Suddenly it came up. I knew it was real. I could not restrain myself, I rang my mother and said to her, I want to ask you something. Did we have such a purse at home? What is this purse? I remember it clearly. And then she said to me: ‘It is the only thing I took from “there”.’

Think of it. When she was roaming around with that Soviet officer and that second inmate, in German houses, to take clothes, and shoes. Because they found nothing in the abandoned houses, the officer escorted them with a rifle and would break into houses where people lived in Zitau, using the butt of his rifle, enter and, threatening them with his rifle, would say to them, ‘give me shoes, give me food, give me sugar, flour, give to these women.’ And these frightened Germans would open their wardrobes and pull stuff out. Or he would tell them to show him where the wardrobe was, and my mother and the second woman would take a coat, or a pair of shoes. She always remembers looking for shoes, she could never find shoes to fit her. One day she saw the purse and took it. It was not an item she needed, sort of. I suppose she felt guilty for taking it and – perhaps I am introducing symbolism where it does not exist, although I think it does – therefore she allowed me to unravel this thing for years, ruin it, until it fell apart with my childhood things.

The amazing thing is that I had never known that this item came from ‘there.’ So how come that in my unconscious, the strangeness of the item was linked with her hidden biographical world? I mean, knowledge finds its very circuitous ways. It was really amazing. It was one of the events during the writing of the book when I understood that things are pulled out of me too, that what I call the collected non-verbal information gets out of the right drawers and connects to the right channels. All the time a puzzle is being put together here.

One of the researchers who did write about A Hat of Glass in recent years said it was not accidental that the first story, ‘A Hat of Glass,’ opens with an image of a puzzle, in which the unnamed heroine, if you remember, is walking in Tel Aviv and thinks she sees Clarissa. And then she says, ‘the truth is pieces of…’ [7]

I cannot remember when I wrote this section, whether it was during one of the re-writes, but it became the first paragraph of the book. The researcher also noted that I was breaking something which is structured as a novel into short stories, but which I am turning seemingly on purpose into short stories. In his opinion there is one hero throughout the book, wearing different faces, he is more or less the same age, more of less with the same biographical world, wandering from story to story, changing costumes. Therefore this process of fragmentation is not accidental and is rooted in the first paragraph of the first story. I admit I had not noticed it.

‘Children of’: ‘looking into the mirror from different angles’ (the next books)

Semel’s narrators, in all her books, are children or young people, often children of survivors, like her, engaged in interrogating their contested Israeli identity. Through discussing her next books, Semel offers me another evaluation, this time of the issues involved in the reception of Shoah survivors in Israeli society. These are recurring themes in the interviews with the other narrators and in the literature. The issues which dominate Becoming Gershona (1989) and Flying Lessons (1991) are:

– dissociation (a daughter of survivors who does not know her parents are survivors but senses her differentness and therefore mistakes the new immigrant boy from Poland, who has re-named himself Nimrod, a pre-Jewish Canaanite name, adopted by the ‘new Hebrews’ as one antithesis to the diaspora, for a ‘true sabra’);

– the acquisition of a new identity;

– the passing on of names of dead relatives and the reluctance to carry a name of a Shoah victim (a theme she returns to in section III in relation to her own biography);

– Israelis’ refusal (or inability) to absorb the new immigrants and their lack of sensitivity towards the survivors;

– the process of repressing the memory of the Shoah and substituting it with a new Israeli identity;

– loss, the lack of memory and the enforced process of repression (which she develops in the next section).

– Rali (1993), however, marks Semel’s (and Israel’s?) passage to a new era in which the Shoah becomes part of contemporary life, rather than merely a traumatised memory.


My impression is that apart from Clarissa, all the stories, including Gershona and Flying Lessons, are about daughters, ‘children of’…


Hadara [8] is not a ‘child of’ but this is deliberate. Look, let us start with the fact that A Hat of Glass was simply an investigation, myself in front of the mirror, therefore the text is very dense, concentrated, like, pardon the analogy, like a blood sample which was left standing and began congealing. It has many congealing factors, this book. I cannot read it today, I find it very difficult , very difficult. It hasn’t got a breath of air. I was suffocated when I wrote it, but I didn’t realise how suffocating it is to read it. Therefore I cannot read it today. In Gershona, I wanted to examine being a child of Shoah survivors in real time. Not retrospectively as in A Hat of Glass. I mean, if I stood close to the mirror for A Hat of Glass, in the other books a process of distancing begins and I look at the reflection from other angles too.

(a) Becoming Gershona (Gershona Shona):

‘Not knowing in real time’

Gershona Shona (Becoming Gershona), (1988, 1990), a novel for young adults, is the story of a young daughter of survivors living in Tel Aviv, who makes friends with a blond boy, whose Israeli name, Nimrod, and his pretence to be a sabra, fools her despite the tell-tale signs about him being a survivor, a new immigrant from Poland. This is very much a story about the construction of ‘native’ Israeli identity.

It interested me to examine not knowing in real time, to examine Gershona, who does not know, the moments when non-verbal information begins to be filed away and when there is a gap between today’s reader, who knows exactly what she is locating and her innocence and her defence in not knowing and on the other hand, her curiosity to link things, and that includes the mistaken connections she is making. And to examine the obvious. I mean, as a child I thought that all parents go to bed with sleeping pills. I started from the naive premise that all parents are like this. With Gershona – this is the kind of obviousness that I wanted to locate – the tattoo on her mother’s forearm is obvious, the pills by the bed and the glass of water are obvious, but on the other hand, there is a vague fear that one day, the mother will swallow too many pills by mistake.

‘The seam of Israeli identity’

I mean, she knows, in her own way, but at the same time she wishes to examine the beginning of the seam of the Israeli identity. Gershona’s yearning for identity is so huge that she refuses to recognise Nimrod who arrives in the neighbourhood, she refuses to see or read, because she has enough tell-tale signs, that what he is selling her is a false Israeli identity. And all the same it’s important for her to fortify herself within this identity.

‘We all refuse to carry someone else’s name’

There is the issue of names, which is very significant. We all refused to carry someone else’s name, particularly a name of someone who died. Particularly someone who died in the Shoah, particularly someone about whom we knew nothing. And we had to carry another identity on our shoulders and to carry the expectations for that person who had died before her time and we had to actualise not only our own expectations, but also other people’s expectations. This was more or less what interested me in Gershona.

(b) Flying Lessons (Maurice Havivel Melamed La’uf):

‘A “macho”, peasant moshava‘ versus ‘uprooted biographies’

Maurice Havivel Melamed La’uf (Flying Lessons), (1991, 1995), a novel for young adults, is the story of the friendship between Maurice, a new immigrant from Tunisia, and Hadara, a young girl whose mother had died, in an Israeli co-operative settlement (moshava) in the early fifties. This too is a story about the construction, by new immigrants, of Israeli identity.

With Maurice I was interested in something quite different. I was interested in the encounter with the old Yishuv. It was not only Hadara. Hadara represents a whole Moshava of people who did not absorb, not only Maurice, but also the uprooted Tova, about whom it is not clear whether she was saved, or whether her parents died in Transnistria. She is a Shoah survivor, it does not matter whether she had been to a concentration camp or not. No one is aware of her loneliness. Both Maurice and Tova are lonely and are not absorbed by that ‘macho’ Israeli Moshava, that peasant Moshava. And therefore it was very important for me to differentiate between that settlement which makes no effort to understand that they have come from another place and the survivors themselves who arrive with uprooted biographies.

(c) Night Games (Rali: Masa Matara):

‘The Shoah as internally structured’

Rali: Masa Matara (Night Games) (1993) is a novel about a group of Haifa school friends who are playing treasure hunt on a Day of Independence eve in 1987, six months before the Intifada (Palestinian uprising). The book is structured in ten stories-chapters, each dealing with one couple and with one stage of the treasure hunt.

In Rali, which I have just finished, that book about the forty-something Israelis who are playing a game in Haifa, there are several very casual mentions of the Shoah. In this book there is a macro examination of Israeli identity in general, because it is a group of people, each of whom has a different biography, and I examine what unifies them, why they can no longer stand the Zionist ethos which they carry on their shoulder. It’s 1987, the decisive year in which the Intifada broke out, in which the reverse of the Six Day War reached its peak. From now on the state of Israel will be different. The process of the sinking of the Likud, or of what I call the fascist face of Israel, has also begun in ’87. Today we have reaped the benefits, but these are always long processes. I have so-called casual mentions of the Shoah in that book.


In other words the Shoah has been sufficiently worked through to be able to be mentioned only casually?


Sort of casually. It’s part of what you said at the beginning of our conversation, I examine the Israeli historiography and the Shoah as a structured element. In that book the Shoah is internally structured. It comes out in a sentence here and there, in a riddle they explore, the riddle of the Templars. [9] In that chapter I examine how Nazism can exist by remote control. The Templars settled amongst the Jews, they advised Bilu[10] and the first settlers in Rishon LeZion, on how to be farmers in that desert hole. Their leader Christoph Hoffman gave detailed practical advice on agronomy and on communal settlement building. Nevertheless, in the thirties, when Nazism began, and particularly between 1939 and 1941, Nazism flourished amongst the second generation Templars. I mean it was possible to activate it by remote control. And most of them returned to Germany to enlist. Do you understand? It’s easy perhaps to say to people in Germany that Jews are sub human, but to transmit that message across thousands of miles, to people who live amongst the Jews as a minority, and to succeed in it, says something which I wanted to examine. Is Nazism transmittable in certain historical circumstances?

In the story of the Templars, the woman who solves the riddle is a daughter of survivors whose parents came to Israel. She knows the story of the Templars from her parents who joined a settlement and got a house in Waldheim, a Templar moshava in the Izrael Valley, and got their first house after the Shoah, at long last their first home in Israel, and found out they had entered a Nazi house. It was full of Nazi artefacts and their first action in Israel was to collect all these artefacts and light a bonfire and burn them all. It’s almost surrealistic.

In one of the other stories, a mother has a fight with her young daughter before she leaves for the treasure hunt, because her daughter loves sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor. And because the parents are going to be out the whole night, it is Independence Day, the daughter is going to stay at her grandmother’s. And the grandmother is not prepared to allow the child to sleep on the floor, and suddenly it occurred to me that the grandmother had been to Ravensbrück. And the whole thing becomes clear. Why is it so difficult for the grandmother to see her granddaughter sleeping on the floor? She says ‘the floor is dirty, and there are beds in the house, and there is a clean sheet, why should anyone choose the floor when there is a clean sheet and a bed.’ The story of Ravensbrück sneaks into that chapter in several ways.

The Shoah is mentioned throughout. There are many Arab characters that group members meet through the night and there is one Israeli man who is clearly a fascist. He is anti-Arab, he is almost a Cahana [11] supporter. And at some stage, with no connection to the Arabs, they mention a grandfather and a grandmother and then he says: ‘ I don’t have grandparents; of my family no one was left.’ And suddenly it puts him, even his fascism, in a different light. I mean, this is not the theme of the book, but the Shoah comes in through the seams.

(d) The new book:

‘How did the process of repression begin?’

The book I am writing now is about new immigrants, not necessarily survivors of concentration camps, rather people who migrate from home to a hostile, alien environment, with a great sense of loss. And they are coping with loss, not with the trauma of the Shoah itself, not with their memories, but with that awful sense of deprivation, of what they lack, home, family, climate. The book is set on February 4, 1950, when it snowed everywhere in Israel. And I have three families, one Polish, one a Romanian woman who meets another lonely Romanian, who comes from Gura Humora (laughs),[12] and a father and son from Morocco who are stuck on a ship in Haifa port, where they are held for two days because of the snow. For all of them snow is an amazing trigger.

I am in the middle of writing so I don’t yet know what will happen. I am dealing mostly with loss and lack. Not really with direct memories, but with the lack of memory. One of the members of the (Polish) family is a girl who cannot remember. How did the process of repression begin? Throughout the story she reconstructs the city of Rovno, in Poland. She is not even clear about whether she was born there or not. But she reconstructs the imaginary of Rovno. She is collecting the pieces and constructs a false world, and it is very sad, because this would be the world with which she would live. And it is a world based on repressing memory and not on remembering.[13]

Ceremonial versus intimate memory

In this section Semel develops a central theme for her: finding a place for intimate Shoah memory in a country which up until very recently allowed only the existence of ceremonial, nationalised memory. [14] Here issues of nationalised memory are linked to the personal experience of carrying a dead relative’s name, the appropriation of people’s names by state institutions (Semel describes this process as ‘stripping’), and the adoption of new, Israeli, as opposed to Jewish, models. I begin by suggesting to her that she is proposing that the state of Israel was constructed on the repression of memory and, on the other hand, built on the memory of all the persecutions of all times.

‘Israel was constructed on the repression of memory’

Without a doubt. But remember what sort of memory we are remembering. We remember a ceremonial memory. We have never had intimate memory. If you want to summarise everything I do on this subject, the book I am working on now will be my fifth book which mentions the Shoah, I am trying to bring back intimate, individual memory. Israeli society has dealt only with heroic memory, with memory that was far too big for us, and with a kind of ceremonial memory which would serve the Zionist ethos.

‘Changing identities as fast as possible’

A kind of memory which was to be a tool, a tool which would first of all change identities as fast as possible.

I remember that when I arrived at Galei Tsahal (the IDF radio station), and it was not a million years ago, it was in 1972, there was a rule in the station that everyone whose name was to be broadcast, producers or presenters and so on, had to have a Hebrew name. A woman whose name was Yael Horovitz enlisted on the same day as I did. She was given exactly three minutes to change her name. Poor girl. Do you know how it feels? So she changed quickly, the first name that came to her mind was the name of her kibbutz, Dan. And she is called Yael Dan to this day. And I witnessed it, and saw how a person had to change her name in a second. I was lucky to have arrived protected, because I was called Nava Artzi,[15] Artzi was already Hebraicised. And I remember my relief that they would not do it to me. I felt as if they stripped her naked. (I was) protected from this terrible process of stripping, when they tear off your clothes and dress you with something else. Do you understand? It’s very traumatic.

When we were children, the burden of names was so heavy. Because when you scratch the Israeli names of the fifties, you discover Yiddish names. I am Sheindl,[16] what do you think? But my son is Iyar. He has an Accadian-Sumerian-Assyrian name. The root is not clear, but it is probably one of the versions of Or (‘light’ in Hebrew) in the Sumerian-Acadian language, I mean, pre-Canaanite, you understand. How far did I go away from Jewish names? It is not accidental.

The direction came from above, I don’t mean it negatively, because I am trying not to attack. I have a deep understanding of why things were done. I don’t think there was someone, an ideologue, who said we should direct this society to be something else. But there was apparently an instinct, a protective reflex of building a new identity. It was clear from our circumstances in a piece of land where, a year after the survivors, after my parents arrived, they already faced another war. My mother claims that the birth of my brother Shlomo was delayed until after the end of the War of Independence. She was scared to give birth.

New (Aryan) models

In order to turn the Jew, the sheep to the slaughter, the diaspora type, the passive type, who accepts his fate resignedly, to turn him quickly to Mordechai Anielewicz, it was necessary to change names, and find very clear and quick models for identification, including, in my opinion, physiognomic models. The model was always blond, with blue eyes, tall and erect. I am talking about Aryan models, in fact. I don’t think that it’s accidental that the first line in Moshe Shamir’s Pirkei Elik (Shamir, 1951) is: ‘Elik was born of the sea.’ He did not originate from anything Jewish. Nothing of the sort, but rather came from the sea, a Venus born from the waves, from the Greek mythology. I am saying it sort of cynically, but things had a huge significance then. And therefore the memory was very ceremonial and very channelled to one purpose – changing the diaspora identity, which had betrayed us, abandoned us, into an identity of a fighter, which is why there is such extensive use of the Bible as a source of models. In this transition intimate memory was abandoned and this is what I wanted to examine it in my work.

Again, I return to something a researcher said to me. One of the researchers who wrote about A Hat of Glass pointed to the fact that the word ‘Shoah’ appears throughout the 250 pages only once. And it appears only in the title of the story ‘Private Shoah.’ And look at the combination – ‘Shoah’ and ‘private’ .

Gendered images

I return Semel here to my research question, but although she describes the moshava which fails to absorb Maurice and Tova as ‘macho,’ and while she does agree with the gender divide I am suggesting, saying that men told more heroic stories than women (an observation supported by Zvi Dror, member of kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot and editor of survivor testimonies, Dror, 1984), she argues that the heroic models were not gendered. She does, however, concede that the women who fought also served as female ‘heroic, fighting models.’ While gender does not seem her primary concern, her narrative displays clearly the construction of her gendered identity. She also makes a clear distinction between her father’s ‘heroic’ tales about the Zionist struggle and her mother’s stories about the Shoah.


Do you think that intimate memory is the domain of women, in contrast with the memory which constructs warriors?


Yes. I cannot negate the fact that because it is my mother who is a concentration camp survivor, in this case a woman, my link is more to women survivors than to men survivors. I am always playing with the idea of what would have happened had my father been the survivor. In the case of Renana, in the book Rali, who is the daughter of those survivors who came from Berlin and who knows about the Templars, it is her father who is the survivor. And he is the one who tells her the story, perhaps the more ideological story, of Nazism.


But your father told more at home, no?


Yes, but not so much about the Shoah as about heroism. And in particular about the Zionist struggle.


Yes, but what I want to ask: it’s clear that the Israeli ethos is an ethos supposedly constructed for survival, war and so forth. Do we as women collude, or do we resist? Is it an act of resistance or act of collusion?


In the first few years of course we colluded. Undoubtedly. That’s why, we have Mordechai Anielewicz and Haike Grossman by his side. And Hanna Senesh? [17] The models were constructed as heroic and at the same time a feminine model was also constructed. An equally heroic, fighting model of a woman. I remember that in all the stories about Anielewicz and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the part played by the women was very important. Perhaps also because women joined the (Israeli) army.


But… when we begin taking this myth apart, you know exactly what sort of equality it is.


But the models were equal, I believe.


But it is a masculine model, no? A heroic woman, using firearms? It is not a Jewish model, of a woman.


Anielewicz too was not a Jewish model.


You said that in the first years we colluded. Where are we now?


Look, in the first years, we went along with it. Again, it’s worth examining: look at the models of Yom Hashoah ceremony from the early years. There was not one Yom Hashoah ceremony in which we did not read Hanna Senesh, ‘My God, my God, let it never end,’ and ‘Happy is the match,’ and Alterman, who is Israeli born. In my opinion these ceremonies are the key…

Yom Hashoah as an isolated island

This is another evaluation sequence, in which Semel contextualised her own book within the ‘stone wall’ reception for earlier Israeli Shoah literature. She acknowledges the role A Hat of Glass played in introducing the Shoah onto Israel’s cognitive map (‘if it played a part in opening something, I am glad’), despite the negative reception when it was first published. Semel contextualises the initial reactions to the book in the general climate of negating the Shoah and maps its gradual acceptance. She also links her protective attitude towards her mother’s privacy and her own privacy with the book’s initial ‘secrecy.’


Understand, Yom Hashoah was an isolated island. No one ever spoke about the Shoah on any other day of the year.


Until the Eichmann trial.


Afterwards too, in my opinion. Adam Ben Kelev, [18] which was published in 1969, and is one of the most important books in Hebrew literature, and Lizkor veLishkoach, [19] which was published in 1968, after the Six Days War, were isolated islands. And after them there were 13 years of silence, in which the Shoah was not present in Israeli cinema, in Israeli theatre, or in Israeli literature. It was non-existent.

Appelfeld [20] did not deal directly with the Shoah, he dealt with the before, or with the after. Therefore it was easy to publicise Appelfeld without saying he was dealing with the Shoah. I am talking about two Israelis, sabras. Dan Ben Amotz – in 1968, no one knew he was a Shoah survivor himself – embodied the sabra myth. And Kaniuk is Israeli-born. Why was he writing such a book, which penetrated the soul of a Shoah survivor who loses his sanity? These books met a stone wall. The Shoah was an isolated, once a year ceremony, in which we fulfilled our duty, and that was it.

A Hat of Glass: ‘Israeli society was not ready for it’


A Hat of Glass had one response. It was published on a Thursday. On the following Friday Ha’aretz published a small box, not even in the literary page, interestingly, but in the paper proper, which carried the by-line of someone who I know today was 23 at the time. He wrote something like, ‘Yesterday A Hat of Glass by Nava Semel was published. From what it says on the cover, this is a book about children of, about the second generation, sons and daughters of Shoah survivors. I for one have no intention even of reading it. Haven’t we had enough with Shoah survivors and their problems, do their children too need to tell us they have problems?’

That was it. Now, I was prepared for it psychologically because when I brought the manuscript to my publisher, my editor Natan Yonatan told me: ‘I hope you know you are committing suicide. But we are prepared to commit suicide together with you.’


What about your mother?


It was not a small victory for her, some symbol of survival, me publishing the book. I continued to protect her very much. The silence around the book emanated from two things. First, from the fact that Israeli society was not ready for it. I know of one critic who wanted to write about it. He asked the Israeli mainstream newspaper Yediot Aharonot to let him write about the book and the answer was the following, and I quote verbatim: ‘don’t write about it, because we do not know how to “eat” it.’ The ‘we don’t know how to eat it’ is a key phrase. Most people did not know how to eat it, which is why they chose to ignore it.

The second factor, I think, is my own obsessive need to protect my mother. I was so afraid she would be hurt and that there now was a physical hand grenade, that I wasn’t available to anyone. I almost refused to give interviews. I reacted very aggressively. I remember that at some stage a woman, who used to write for LaIsha (a women’s magazine) said to me ‘I want to write about the book.’ But she added, ‘but I am going to verify the things in the book with an investigation we are conducting on your mother’s life. From all sorts of people from her town and so on.’ And I became hysterical. Because I was terrified that the things that she had chosen to keep secret will find their way to LaIsha magazine. And I threatened that I would commit suicide if she publishes the article. I am ashamed to tell you, but I had no other way. It got to a point that whenever anyone mentioned my mother, I begged the journalist not to write about the book.

Since then many things have been written about the book, first in the US. The second serious thing was by the journalist Sarit Yishai-Levi, who is Israeli-born, whose parents come from Morocco, or Iraq, from a completely non-Shoah environment. She read the book and did not leave me in peace, saying, ‘I will interview you. It isn’t possible for this thing to be forgotten.’ And it was very easy for me to talk to her. She didn’t nag me about my mother, or about Shlomo, and she didn’t say she would examine my life and cross informations, all sort of things people said to me which made me very cautious. And she opened it up. Afterwards there were other articles. I have no doubt that it was because Sarit arrived was committed to it as an Israeli. I mean, her commitment to the Shoah is because the Shoah is part of her historiography, not part of her biography.

Many people say to me, what a pity you haven’t published the book after Grossman.[21] It was a different climate. Poliker [22] did something. David Grossman did something Should I say I feel discriminated because the book was published in the wrong time, when the climate was not yet ready, as opposed to today? But if it played a part in opening something, I am glad. It was re-printed three times (and has been re-issued in 1998). It has been reviewed throughout the years, which means it has a real life, because there is hardly a month I don’t get some reaction to it…

‘Israel is growing in leaps and bounds’

Here again I stop her flow, asking her to evaluate Israeli society’s reaction to the Shoah. She begins with a short evaluation, and generalises about what she calls the ‘metaphysical clock,’ (probably meaning a biographical clock), which compels survivors to tell and their children, who have become parents themselves, to listen. This leads her to a more personal narrative, about how her own anxiety about her children is a replica of her mother’s anxieties (‘I was the embodiment of my mother’). This is followed by another short evaluation, which links the ‘metaphysical clock’ with the Jewish tradition of ‘reckoning’ and atoning for our sins by ‘opening the gate’ (to the survivors’ stories). I begin by asking her if as a state Israel is coming to the end of its adolescence.


The state of Israel is growing in leaps and bounds, and there are undigested bits. But I believe that things, for better or for worse, have to come out, at some stage, at the right time. This is valid also in relation to confronting the Shoah. It did not happen in real time, it happened in another time. This morning, a minute before you came in, I received this in the mail (she shows me material relating to a second generation conference). Look how many established bodies support it. Amcha and Ella are two bodies offering psychological support and welfare to survivors and their children. None of this was available in the early eighties. I wrote A Hat of Glass in 1980. Today it is almost 1993. Very significant 13 years. In the US I met Helen Epstein. Helen wrote Children of the Holocaust (Epstein, 1979), the very first text which was written about children of Shoah survivors. And she too wrote it after she had a child. And this is very significant. I certainly didn’t know about her and she didn’t know about me. This means that something in the metaphysical clock was working. And this is the product of two biological factors. First we have grown up and became parents and many of our behaviours, against which we rebelled as children, in particular the banana and jumper syndrome, we found ourselves doing exactly the same to our children.

I have fought with my son hysterically last Friday because he was late home, not because I mind him coming home late, but because he didn’t telephone and I was lucky not to have known that a terrorist was roaming freely in Ramat Ef’al, because had I known it, I think I would have gone crazy. And I patrolled the windows and the house, just like my mother used to, and I knew I was doing it and you know what? It didn’t bother me I was doing it. And I screamed at him as my mother used to scream at me. I was the embodiment of my mother. The second factor is our parents’ ageing.

Look at the interview that arrived five minutes ago. It’s time for us to talk a little and get to know each other, and why so late? As it says in the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) prayer book, ‘Open a gate for us now, while a gate is being locked.’ It is not accidental that the article mentions Yom Kippur

‘The process of repression’

I return Semel to my research question, gender differences – is there a feminine element in daughters of survivors breaking the silence and telling their parents’ stories, and their own stories? Semel explicates it in the context of the differences between women and men as parents, another example of her perception of the construction of gendered identities. Again, ‘trigger’ is a key word. However, she uses this question as an entry point to a long narrative sequence about personal experiences relating to her childhood eating problems. Food is a ‘sub-text of survivorship’ in many Shoah survivors’ families (key words are ‘guilt,’ ‘responsibility’ and ‘control’). As we agreed, I have deleted much of this sequence, leaving only the bare references to elucidate the meaning of the story in relation to her transformation, from feeling weak, the classical ‘sheep to the slaughter’ in her words, to finding peace and closing the circle, through writing.

This is significant in relation to the general story of the place of the Shoah in the Israeli psyche, from being secret, shameful and stigmatised, to a more respected place in the national ethos; from the definition of the Israeli ethos as hegemonic, masculine and ceremonial to a more intimate, feminine identity, aided, I would argue, by the narrators’ books and films.

‘The process of repression regarding the Shoah was very deep with me’

I think that the experience of parenting, for a woman, is a far greater trigger than for a man. It’s an immediate trigger. Let’s say that for a man, the experience of parenting, when he examines himself versus his parents, may happen later, as soon as his children are older. I think that with women this trigger acts very fast, when they have a baby. I’ll give you an example of something I was aware of when Iyar was born. I was obsessive about food from the start. This was the exact copy of what happened to me as a child. I think that the process of repression regarding the Shoah was very deep with me.

The doctor’s recipe was to feed me only when I wanted to eat, never to force me, and to insist I ate only two things, a boiled egg and a chopped tomato. With this I would be able to survive. And leave the rest. I did the same with Iyar. Food was a nightmare at home, my mother would cry… why did she deserve such a thing. Why did she deserve such punishment. Now, I didn’t control it, I can say this with certainty.

The woman is the one who is responsible for feeding the child. I think that in many families of Shoah survivors life’s focus is food. There are many sub-texts of survivorship, of mutual guilt apportioning around this business of food. And it goes: how can you do this to me? The passing on of the guilt ball is very very problematic in these families. The sense of responsibility you receive as a child, becoming adult before your time, and being able to control your parents. There is something in the basic structure of the family, like who is the source of authority, who is the source of responsibility, who is the source of control. To a certain extent this balance is shaken, and you too assume a source of authority, and a source of responsibility, for your parents’ wellbeing. All these reverses, this game of reverses is often happening around the table and around the plate.

‘It was easy for me to retreat to the position of the rejected’ [23]

Semel begins the narrative of the second part of her trajectory – of finding an alternative to ‘the position of the rejected’ – with an incident which happened when her son was in kindergarten. From guilt and having to ‘fulfil expectations’ and ‘fill the gap of the people who died,’ she begins her journey towards asserting herself and, through her writing, taking her place in contemporary Israeli society. The beginning of this journey, however, is full of anger and violence, two key words. I try to develop the topic of anger, but before speaking of the irritation she felt by her mother equating every catastrophe, big or small, with Auschwitz and the Shoah, Semel speaks of the Gulf War, the one time when her parents did not resort to Shoah codes. [24] Interestingly, Semel too uses Shoah metaphors of passivity and heroic pride to describe her own choices during the Gulf War. She was in New York at the time and felt she was abandoning her ‘old parents in the ghetto and going out to the forests as a proud partisan.’

One of the triggers to the guilt feelings you carry is undoubtedly because you fill the gap of the people who died, and because you are meant to fulfil expectations, and you cannot always fulfil them, and then you become a tenfold disappointment. This business of guilt weighs very heavily on me. Therefore it was easy for me to retreat to the position of the rejected, because it answers a basic need in me.

Because we are talking about life’s strange triggers, when the writing is on the wall, it was written on the wall in something very accidental, again in relation to my child…

She narrates an incident that happened when her first born was four, when she was rushing to pick him up from kindergarten. Anxious about being late – she is anxious about being late to pick up her twins as we talk, and keeps gazing at her watch – she was accused by a woman of crashing into her parked car and Semel assumed responsibility immediately:

I immediately volunteered guilt. I apologised grovellingly, I said, pardon me, and I am sorry, and I was in a hurry, and my child is in the kindergarten, and I am very sorry, and I will pay anything you want. I felt the aggression towards an oppressor (laughs) who is standing in the street and spitting on me and I accepted it all and nodded…

When the woman left, Semel realised, from the way the car was parked, that it wasn’t she who crashed into the woman’s car.

It was the first time in my life. I called her back and I burnt with anger. It was not anger. It was something abnormal, it was all my anger at having volunteered to be a victim. All these volunteering acts were collapsed onto that stupid scene, that accidental scene. And I screamed at her. I think I was capable of hitting her, physically. I had such violence in me that I didn’t even know existed. And within a minute she apologised and said ‘I beg your pardon’ and she gave me back my piece of paper, and I tore it in front of her with hysterical ceremony. And when I got into the car, and drove, I felt that a huge level of violence remained in my body, all my muscles contracted. I mean, what I off-loaded was one sixteenth of the iceberg of the violence stored in me. That situation helped me later. Of course I worked it out in my head, it was clear to me where it came from.

‘I have no doubt that I have stored anger’


Anger is one of the things that are very well documented in the lives of children of survivors. A very deep anger at their parents.


I have suppressed it very much. I have no doubt that I have stored anger about this business of food. Because it wasn’t my fault…

But I feel no anger towards them. Certainly not towards my mother. On the contrary, I have a high degree of understanding. Truthfully. A high level of understanding. What I do find difficult today is the equation of everything with Auschwitz. I mean every catastrophe is Auschwitz-scale catastrophe. Excluding one thing – the Gulf War. During which my parents were the source of calm and serenity. I was abroad and here my sense of guilt was a thousand times greater than if I hadn’t been a daughter of survivors. The sense of abandonment, of having abandoned my old parents in the ghetto and going out to the forests as a proud partisan, was very difficult. And on the other hand, all my friends, my age group, my generation, whether they were children of survivors of not, fled the city (Tel Aviv) hysterically, while my parents remained in their empty street, alone, exuding calm, un-hysterical.

On the other hand, throughout my life, any and every catastrophe, illness, everything became equivalent to Auschwitz and this did irritate me. Today too. Suddenly it seems that the concentration camp returns. And these are small things. And in relation to the (Gulf) war, which was a huge, existential thing, there was suddenly calm and security, which they radiated towards me. They never gave me the slightest that I was a deserter, a traitor, that I ‘have abandoned my old parents in a sealed room in Tel Aviv.’


Perhaps it came from the same place as having jumped from the train?


It also came from a feeling that the worst had already happened, this couldn’t be as bad, it doesn’t come near that other evil. On the other hand, in the everyday, there are things that trigger some catastrophe, some ultimate catastrophe.

‘I had spoilt the Israeli stereotype’

The reaction to A Hat of Glass, among the other hostile and alienating reactions, was the claim that I had ‘spoilt the Israeli stereotype.’ How dare I describe, underneath the macho, a trembling Israeli (man), frightened, scared, diaspora-like? I was criticised for having spoilt the beautiful ethos. In Gershona, I was criticised for writing that when she didn’t come home and her mother said to her, ‘the Nazis didn’t kill me, you will kill me. They didn’t kill me, you will kill me.’ Many people pointed this text to me, I mean, ‘this is what I survived Auschwitz for?’[25]

‘You had to be strong – I was the classical sheep to the slaughter’

Positioning herself as ‘the classical sheep to the slaughter,’ Semel offers a key evaluation of Israeli society, where you ‘had to be really macho … women also.’ Again, mixing Shoah past with Israeli present, she judges that she would not have been able to take up arms during the Shoah, not even to escape the Mengele selections. She uses this judgement of her own personal abilities to generalise: we were being ‘lied to,’ we are not at all ‘new Hebrews,’ but rather ‘frightened, scared’ and ‘diaspora-like.’ But ironically, this understanding helps her make peace with her identity, helps her ‘stop being ashamed that it was always I who was the frightened child.’

My work includes deciphering many things. Walking in front of the mirror in varying angles makes me stop rebelling, like I did in my childhood, and stop being antagonistic. Accept them (my parents) on the human level, as people with a private, intimate life, connect with their intimacy, make peace with my identity, stop being ashamed that it was always I who was the frightened child, though I always had to mask it, because in Israel then you had to be really macho, and not necessarily masculine, women also. You had to be strong. And I always knew inside that I was very weak. That I was a naturally born victim, that I volunteer. And I often wonder what would have happened had I been in that situation of Mengele? I would possibly not have escaped. I am telling you the truth. With my givens as Nava? Not at all. I was the classical sheep to the slaughter. I, an Anielewicz? Not at all. This I already knew when I was little. I knew that I was being lied to, because I knew I would not have been heroic. How could I have been heroic. I, who tremble at every shadow in the house? I never go to sleep, delaying sleep as much as possible. (But I) would never use sleeping pills, of course, I would eat the ceiling first, I would go out for a walk, but I would not take a pill…

‘Hiding behind my books’

I ask her about having chosen, like her brother Shlomo, the public forum and again, she gives shame and guilt as reasons for ‘hiding behind her books,’ which she calls her ‘satellites.’ Later she returns to the topic of anger, which, she claims is directed against herself, not against her parents. Food as a problem has been overcome, she no longer has the urge to force her children to eat and has achieved the most difficult feat for a Jewish mother. She is able to throw out uneaten food (which both she and I understand, from our common memory bank, as a huge personal victory).

Yes, but Shlomo is risking much more than me, he is exposed bodily. I, because of my shame and guilt feelings, launch satellites. The books. And I can also hide afterwards at home. Shlomo always says to me ‘you are actually saying that you haven’t written it. That someone else has written it. You don’t give interviews, of course, great, so that you can put it onto someone else. So that you do not stand behind things like an adult, because you are so scared.’ I tend to retreat fast, I retreat a priori, from the start. I say I don’t want people to hurt me, so I retreat. So they won’t know who is the writer, she won’t be available. And the book will not look attractive, yes? The cover of A Hat of Glass is grey, and this hat looks so monk-like, with its ash cloth. It was my choice, how to colour it so that it would look grey as a little mouse. I know it is happening and I cannot get over it. And I say to myself fuck off, why should I get over it? At 38 I would not get over it. That’s me and that’s it. What can I do? I want the books to come out. But I detach myself from the books all the time.

Unless someone arrives intimately, like you. I have no problem with intimacy. I have a problem with public exposure. I also don’t mind giving a lecture, because it isn’t me. In a lecture it is another entity who is speaking, looking on. Exposing myself is more difficult and has to do with the fact that the media and the public have burrowed into our family, and with the fact that Shlomo is so exposed.

‘I have learnt to live in peace with what there is…’

I have learnt reconcile, and to generally live in peace with what there is and not to demand what isn’t there. Including living in peace with my childhood. At the end of the day, childhood is a very crucial part of our adulthood, but when we are kids, we don’t pay it any attention. Today, I have accepted it. I no longer pester my children with food. I am very proud of it. Very very proud of it, Ronit. They eat what they eat. There is always a moment, and then I take the plate, and demonstratively I throw out all the leftovers into the bin. And I am very happy[RL1]


It’s hard. To throw leftovers into the bin.


No, it’s one of my greatest pleasures today.


But to reach the moment in which it becomes a pleasure…


Ach, it’s a struggle. It’s really a compulsive pleasure. I clear the plates and throw out the leftovers immediately. And I don’t make the children eat them. And when someone like my mother says to me, they haven’t eaten, I say yes, so they didn’t eat. So they were not hungry. I immediately have these aggressive lectures. And it’s all very aggressive, so they didn’t eat. Look, I am a good mother, they didn’t eat

(We both laugh nervously, wildly: I know exactly what she is talking about).


It’s a battle. I mean, the aggression is still there.


Look, the aggression is against myself. Today I no longer think it’s against my parents. I suppose I would have done the same thing if I had been a Shoah survivor and I had a girl (with eating problems). I may even have strangled her. Seriously. I believe my mother should have had a huge amount of aggression towards me. I tortured her. My anger is against myself. How did I do such a thing?

‘Writing is the closing of circles’

The interview came to a close when Semel had to pick up her twins from the neighbouring kindergarten. The last section is a summary which brings together all the themes of the narrative, mixing narration and evaluation. In it, Semel links life and literature. Literature, ultimately, is a channel for anxieties, guilt and shame, and a method through which she can cope. Many earlier key words recur (‘loss,’ ‘anger,’ ‘aggression,’ ‘violence,’ ‘bubble,’ ‘guilt,’ ‘shame,’ ‘uprooted,’ ‘Zionist ethos’) to link biography and literature. The evaluation sequences evaluate literary strategies, but also chart, once again, the change of emphasis from the Shoah taking centre-stage to being more subtly integrated into the texture of the text. Writing is a way of ‘marking territories’ and channelling feelings of guilt and shame. Semel’s writing has changed from being compulsively done in a ‘bubble,’ to a routine of a working writer-mother, ‘split, scattered through my life.’ Writing her stories, by ‘taking apart the bricks of her life,’ has enabled Semel to ‘make her self.’

The final part of the narrative locates her in contemporary Israeli literature (‘my books could have been written only here’) but argues that ‘uprootedness’ is ultimately ‘a collective Israeli experience.’ Moving from what Karmit Gai describes as being ‘the other of the other of the other,’ Semel’s narrative confirms Gai’s contention that ‘no one fitted the mould,’ and reports being in the process of ‘acceptance,’ ‘peace making,’ and ‘the closing of circles.’

The circle was closed. In many ways. In A Hat of Glass there are many concentrated materials, derived mainly from my anxiety level. I located, I think, my anxiety levels, and each level became a story. The school outing, leaving home, food, travelling to a foreign place (Fayum), meeting strangers who threaten you. In ‘Private Shoah,’ London, the story, the threat of someone who can do something terrible to you and no one would have known that you ever existed. I don’t know. In almost the stories you can see a parent’s death, grief, an a priori loss. I tried to locate this type of anxiety. When I work them through literature, through the literary channel, something is healed within me. There is, undoubtedly, a therapeutic act in writing. Beyond the literary needs. And specifically a closing of circles and an acceptance and peace making, which happen to me immediately after a story is closed.

Literature channelling guilt and shame

I very much like using literature as a channel of all the polarising, extreme emotions. Because when you build a new system, you reshuffle the same aggressions, violence and angers, a terrible disappointment, and a terrible shame. Guilt and shame are the two things that are the most difficult for me, to this day. But I can see them. Not that they have become less difficult. When a catastrophe occurs, or a situation in which I feel shamed, or guilty, I still feel it as acutely. What allows me to breathe between the situations, is the fact that I am aware of it occurring, that I mark their territory the whole time, and that the marking of territories is done through the writing.


Do you have a sense of relief when you finish a story?


Today less so, because I am writing with much longer breathing spaces. Writing has become part of my life. It’s no longer done in a bubble. A Hat of Glass was written in a bubble. Just so. I didn’t leave the house, I looked after the baby and I wrote, I looked after a baby and I wrote. And as you know, in the first few months a baby sleeps. I would stick bottles, warm them, I was a functional mother and that’s it. And I wrote the whole time, all the hours I was on my feet. Today it’s a different sort of writing routine. Another form of discipline. It’s split, scattered through my life differently. Do you understand? Therefore these emotions, the intensities which characterised the writing of A Hat of Glass are different. It’s also typical of first books. Later you learn techniques, discipline and in particular, your right emotional doses.

When you live in the very intensive emotional doses of another world, you must watch them, so that they do not, God forbid, seep in. This is precisely the axis around which one loses one’s sanity. I certainly think that in A Hat of Glass there was something very obsessive, very borderline. After which I learnt to arrange the two worlds so that they live in peace with one another feed each other, enrich each other and not clash with one another. I don’t say that there are no situations in which writing is difficult, when I don’t succeed in getting out what I want. But I think that this is a matter of technique, training, and many years of work.

‘Taking apart the bricks of my life’


So you are speaking of writing in lieu of therapy?


No. It’s not writing in lieu of therapy. Last night I read Milan Kundera, and he quotes Nabokov as saying that every writer writes, takes apart the bricks of his life, because he thinks that his life is not worthy of being written as a book, he takes apart the bricks and builds afresh. And that’s why there is no point, in Nabokov’s opinion, to look for the writers’ biography, because from the beginning there is no connection. I always say that all I do is use my biographical materials. But it is no longer me. Gershona was a little bit me, but Hadara is not at all me. Maurice is certainly not me. In Rali, there are twenty two characters none of whom is me, in any way. In contrast to A Hat of Glass. The person who said that there was only one character in that book was probably right. There is one mother and one male/female hero.

‘My books could have been written only here’

Today I feel that using the same bricks, my gaze is far less direct. It’s me versus these bricks. I like moving materials around, but there is no doubt that I am working in a circle which still interests me. But this circle has certainly widened greatly. In Rali you will certainly see it. It is happening here and now. It deals with the Zionist ethos. More so than with the Shoah, it deals with the Zionist ethos. And with issues of children of uprooted people, more so than with children of Shoah survivors. The uprootedness is already an Israeli collective experience. And what I am writing now deals only with new immigrants and the experience of uprootedness. The Shoah is subterranean, for a situation of uprootedness in general.

But I no longer feel like justifying myself when people say to me, you keep returning to the early years of the state of Israel, to new immigrants, to uprooted people, to Shoah survivors. Personally, I do not want to write about Sheinkin.[26] What can I do? There is a certain fashion in the last few years in Israel, and because I am always out of synch, now too I am out of synch, and today’s fashion is the type of literature which deals with the me, the private, the here and now, representing what I call ‘Sheinkinism.’ The individual in the large urban space, Tel Aviv dressed up as New York. My own books could have been written only here. What can I do? I do not pretend to be like someone who lives in New York. I am not contemptuous of it, I am just stating what I am not. Do you understand? I could not write a book about fucking in Tel Aviv. I may be saying it out of jealousy because I would have liked to be able to. To be free of the duty; perhaps I have a duty to continue to deal with these things the whole time? Perhaps it is my duty. I do not find the strength to refuse (to translate Shoah-related plays, for instance). And I know what it compels me to do. And despite it I continue to be attracted to it. However, I think that Maurice, and Gershona and Rali as well as what I am writing now are really different. The density is different. Do you understand? These are texts with more air. But I can’t say that I would not have been happy to write something more fun, freer. In Rali, by the way, I did think I had written something different, but didn’t the Shoah crop up at least four times? I really didn’t think it would come in with the Templars’ story, but it did, and how. And Ravensbrück? I didn’t know a thing about that place. Only after I had written the word I checked it in the books. What did I know about it? I possibly only knew that it was a women’s camp.

Although well structured and ordered, the interview has no coda. The time came to pick up her young twins from the kindergarten, and although the domestic help offered to do it for her, Semel decided to pick them up herself and asked me to accompany her. Gendered domestic duties take over, as they punctuate her life and her narrative. We spent another couple of hours, chatting, while she fed the children.


Nava Semel’s narrative is a ‘key story’ to the interpretation of all nine narratives and to the understanding of the complex relations between Israel’s second generation and the Shoah and its survivors. It is a well ordered and structured auto/biographical account where self, life and discourse mesh to demonstrate how, in making our stories, we make our selves. Like Pines’s patients, Semel ‘knew and did not know’ about the Shoah at the same time; the Shoah and its aftermath were a dark presence at home and in society at large. Semel made her story, literally, by learning to listen to her mother, beyond the silences, when her mother became ready to talk, gradually, partially, leaving many ‘memory gaps.’ When the mother’s story was first told, through a stranger (Semel’s boyfriend), it was heard, but not consciously digested. Life – the ontology of the daughter of survivors – was experienced, but no discourse was available to represent it. The road, however, was paved with tell-tale signposts: the school commemoration ceremonies which privileged heroic acts of resistance which the daughter could not equate with her ‘passive’ mother; the Shoah book she was not allowed to read; the quick name (and identity) change in the army (though not her own). It took becoming a mother for the stories to formulate in the daughter’s head and to find their way onto paper. The representational discourses were becoming available and as the daughter began ‘making her stories,’ she went in search of herself, via her mother’s stories, which she chronicled as daughter, therapist, and chronicler, all the while writing her own chronicle, making her own self: stories-within-stories.

Semel’s narrative charts the process of closing the gap between ontology and representation and signals the very Israeli trajectory from complete silence about the Shoah to an active voice telling, persistently and obstinately, the story of the ‘second generation.’ The narrative juxtaposes the heroic versus the (allegedly) passive, Shoah versus gevurah, Israel versus the diaspora, the individual versus society. Semel highlights, with great understanding and mercy, not only Israelis’ incomprehension but also the survivors’ great strength and tenacity, and with her stories, she helps shift the boundaries of self and society, Israeli and survivor. The themes she brings up in this perfectly structured and ordered ‘key story’ narrative, are picked up by the other narrators who highlight, perhaps more so than Semel, the central theme of stigmatisation, which is developed in chapter 6.

Writing, according to all the narrators, ‘is not a matter of choice.’ Seeking out a discourse to make the silences talk, to ‘break the conspiracy of silence,’ was and is ‘necessary’ (cf. Stanley, 1996) in order to bridge the gap between ontology and representation. Silence may be the only option – for some – to respond to the Shoah; but for Israel’s Shoah daughters, discourse, writing (or making films) was their way to reify their own, and their parents’ Shoah and post-Shoah experiences in contemporary Israel, and to begin the process of reckoning, and mourning, for that hitherto unacknowledged ‘a priori loss.’


[1] Semel pointed out in her comments that although Hebrew was spoken at home, her parents, just like mine, spoke German, their mother tongue, when they wanted to ‘talk about things not intended for the ears of the children.’

[2] Adolf Eichmann, an SS Sturmbahfürer, played a central role in the transportation of Jews to the extermination camps. After the war he escaped to Argentina, where he was captured by the Israeli Mossad (secret service) in 1960, and brought to Israel to stand trial, which ended in his execution (Segev, 1991: 307).

[3] Katzetnik 135633 is the pseudonym of the Shoah survivor writer Yehiel Dinur, whose identity was revealed to the Israeli public only during the Eichmann trial in 1961, when he gave evidence and collapsed on the witness stand. The trial was broadcast on Israeli radio. House of Dolls is the very explicit, very painful story of a young girl, Daniela, who is a prostitute in a concentration camp. It made a huge impact when it was published, although, as Semel says later in the interview, nobody thought of Katzetnik in literary terms, but in survivorship terms. Today, many children of survivors who write would agree with Irena Klepfisz (1990a: 46) that House of Dolls represents violence and sexuality in a manner which borders on the pornographic.

[4] The word, according to Semel’s later comments, is actually in Polish, but her mother thought it was Russian.

[5] Shiv’a means ‘seven’ to denote the seven-day mourning period Jews keep, sitting at home on wooden stools, and receiving those who offer their condolences, hence the expression ‘sitting Shiv’a.’

[6] Professor Sasson Somech is an Israeli researcher in Arabic literature and studies and a translator of Mahfouz’s work.

[7] The actual first sentences in the story ‘A Hat of Glass’ (which is the first story of the collection of that name) are: ‘This isn’t the whole truth. Only pieces of it have fallen in the passing years. When I collect them, they are like crumbs of mouldy bread’ (Semel, 1985: 9).

[8] The heroine of Flying Lessons.

[9] The Templars were Protestant German settlers, motivated by Christian faith to settle in Erez Israel, and who believed that by encouraging the Jews to return to their land, they would bring about the second coming of the (Christian) Messiah.

[10] Bilu is an acronym for Beit Israel Lechu veNelcha (The house of Israel, let us go forth), a Jewish student organisation founded in Kharkov, Russia, in 1882, with the aim of establishing collective agricultural settlements (moshavot) in Erez Israel. In 1882 several scores of pioneers immigrated to Palestine and founded several moshavot (Dubnov, 1956: 680).

[11] Rabbi Meir Cahana was a racist US-born Israeli member of Knesset whose re-election was prevented by an anti-racism law. He was murdered in New York, but his followers are still active: Yig’al Amir, who assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, was one of them.

[12] My father’s birth place. Nava and I had exchanged biographical details.

[13] As it happens, Semel’s next book after Rali was not Snow in Tel Aviv, the book she was talking to me about, but Bride on Paper (Semel, 1996), a love triangle between an Erez Israeli man, a new immigrant from Poland, whom he brings to Palestine by fictively marrying her, and a major in the British army in pre-war Palestine in the 1930s. Semel wrote to me later that she had decided not to publish the book for the time being.

[14] See chapter 4 for a detailed discussion.

[15] Interestingly ‘Artzi’ means ‘My Land’ in Hebrew. It was probably chosen because it sounds like ‘Herzig,’ Semel’s father’s original surname. This was one way Jewish surnames were Hebreicised; another was to translate the European name into Hebrew.

[16] ‘Beautiful’ in Yiddish. A literal Hebrew translation would be ‘Yaffa.’ ‘Nava’ – ‘comely’ in Hebrew, is a more modern version.

[17] Hanna Senesh was a Hungarian-born Israeli paratrooper, parachuted behind Nazi lines during the war and killed by the Gestapo. See chapter 4 for a discussion of her role in Zionist history.

[18] Yoram Kaniuk, Adam Ben Kelev (Son of Dog), 1969.

[19] Dan Ben Amotz, Lizkor veLishkoach (To Remember, To Forget), 1968. See chapter 4 for a discussion of the centrality of Dan Ben Amotz in the construction of the sabra identity.

[20] Aharon Appelfeld, an Israeli writer born in Bukovina, who wrote many novels centred around the experiences of Jews before and after the Shoah.

[21] David Grossman, whose Ayen Erech: Ahava (See Under: Love) 1986, is an acclaimed novel about the implications of the Shoah in contemporary Israel. A Hat of Glass was published a year before Grossman’s novel.

[22] Yehuda Poliker, the rock artist and son of survivors, featured in Orna Ben Dor’s film Because of That War (1988).

[23] In a later comment, Semel said she really meant to say ‘the position of a victim.’

[24] Which Israeli society did, as discussed in chapter 4.

[25] In Aaron Hass’s In the Shadow of the Holocaust: The Second Generation (1990), there is a chapter titled ‘For this I survived the camps?’ This, apparently, is a common reaction by many survivors.

[26] The name of a street in downtown Tel Aviv, which has become yuppified in recent years. Together with this gentrification, a new trend in literature has evolved.